The House by the Church-Yard, by J. Sheridan Le Fanu

Chapter 82

IN WHICH MR. PAUL Dangerfield PAYS HIS RESPECTS AND COMPLIMENTS AT BELMONT; WHERE OTHER VISITORS ALSO PRESENT Themselves.

Before going to town, Mr. Dangerfield, riding over the bridge and up the Palmerstown-road, dismounted at Belmont door-steps, and asked for the general. He was out. Then for Miss Rebecca Chattesworth. Yes, she was in the withdrawing-room. And so, light, white, and wiry, he ascended the stairs swiftly.

‘Mr. Dangerfield,’ cried Dominick, throwing open the door; and that elderly and ill-starred wooer glided in thereat.

‘Madam, your most humble servant.’

‘Oh! Mr. Dangerfield? You’re very welcome, Sir,’ said Aunt Becky, with a grand courtesy, and extending her thin jewelled hand, which he took gallantly, with another bow, and a smile, and a flash from his spectacles.

Aunt Becky laid down her volume of Richardson. She was quite alone, except for her little monkey — Goblin — with a silver hoop about his waist, and a chain thereto attached; two King Charles’s dogs, whose barking subsided after a while; and one gray parrot on a perch in the bow-window, who happily was not in a very chatty mood just then. So the human animals were able to edge in a sentence easily enough. And Mr. Dangerfield said —

‘I’m happy in having found you, Madam; for whatever be my disappointments else, to Miss Rebecca Chattesworth at least I owe a debt of gratitude, which, despairing to repay it, I can only acknowledge; and leaving unacknowledged, I should have departed from Ireland most unhappily.’

‘What a fop! what a fop,’ said the parrot.

‘You rate my poor wishes too highly, Mr. Dangerfield. I over-estimated, myself, my influence with the young lady; but why speak of your departure, Sir, so soon? A little time may yet work a change.’

‘You lie, you dog! you lie, you lie, you lie,’ said the parrot.

‘Madam,’ said he with a shake of his head, ‘’tis hoping against hope. Time will add to my wrinkles without softening her aversion. I utterly despair. While there remained one spark of hope I should never have dreamed of leaving Chapelizod.’

Here there was a considerable pause, during which the parrot occasionally repeated, ‘You lie, you lie — you dog — you lie.’

‘Of course, Sir, if the chance be not worth waiting for, you do well to be gone wherever your business or your pleasures, Sir, invite you,’ said Aunt Becky, a little loftily.

‘What a fop!’ said the parrot. ‘You lie, you dog!’

‘Neither business, Madam, nor pleasures invite me. My situation here has been most distressing. So long as hope cheered me, I little regarded what might be said or thought; but I tell you honestly that hope is extinguished; and it has grown to me intolerable longer to remain in sight of that treasure for which I cannot cease to wish, and which I never can possess. I’ve grown, Madam, to detest the place.’

Aunt Becky, with her head very high, adjusted in silence, the two China mandarins on the mantelpiece — first, one very carefully, then the other. And there was a pause, during which one of the lap-dogs screamed; and the monkey, who had boxed his ears, jumped, with a ringing of his chain, chattering, on the back of the arm-chair in which the grim suitor sat. Mr. Dangerfield would have given the brute a slap in the face, but that he knew how that would affect Miss Rebecca Chattesworth.

‘So, Madam,’ said he, standing up abruptly, ‘I am here to thank you most gratefully for the countenance given to my poor suit, which, here and now, at last and for ever, I forego. I shall leave for England so soon as my business will allow; and as I made no secret of my suit, so I shall make none of the reasons of my departure. I’m an outspoken man, Madam; and as the world knew my hopes, I shall offer them no false excuses for my departure; but lift my hat, and bow to fortune — a defeated man.’

Avez-vous diné mon petit coquin?’ said the parrot.

‘Well, Sir, I will not altogether deny you have reason for what you design; and it may be, ’tis as well to bring the matter to a close, though your resolution has taken me by surprise. She hath shown herself so perverse in this respect, that I allow I see no present likelihood of a change; and indeed I do not quite understand my niece; and, very like, she does not comprehend herself.’

Mr. Dangerfield almost smiled one of his grim disconcerting smiles, and a cynical light played over his face; and the black monkey behind him grinned and hugged himself like his familiar. The disappointed gentleman thought he understood Miss Gertrude pretty well.

‘I thought,’ said Aunt Becky; ‘I suspected — did you — a certain young gentleman in this neighbourhood —’

‘As having found his way to the young lady’s good graces?’ asked Dangerfield.

‘Yes; and I conjecture you know whom I mean,’ said Aunt Rebecca.

‘Who — pray, Madam?’ he demanded.

‘Why, Lieutenant Puddock,’ said Aunt Becky, again adjusting the china on the chimneypiece.

‘Eh? — truly? — that did not strike me,’ replied Dangerfield.

He had a disconcerting way of saying the most ordinary things, and there was a sort of latent meaning, like a half-heard echo, underrunning the surface of his talk, which sometimes made people undefinably uncomfortable; and Aunt Becky looked a little stately and flushed; but in a minute more the conversation proceeded.

‘I have many regrets, Miss Chattesworth, in leaving this place. The loss of your society — don’t mistake me, I never flatter — is a chief one. Some of your views and plans interested me much. I shall see my Lord Castlemallard sooner than I should had my wishes prospered; and I will do all in my power to engage him to give the site for the building, and stones from the quarry free; and I hope, though no longer a resident here, you will permit me to contribute fifty pounds towards the undertaking.’

‘Sir, I wish there were more gentlemen of your public spirit and Christian benevolence,’ cried Aunt Becky, very cordially; ‘and I have heard of all your goodness to that unhappy family of Doctor Sturk’s — poor wretched man!’

‘A bagatelle, Madam,’ said Dangerfield, shaking his head and waving his hand slightly; ‘but I hope to do them, or at least the public, a service of some importance, by bringing conviction home to the assassin who struck him down, and that in terms so clear and authentic, as will leave no room for doubt in the minds of any; and to this end I’m resolved to stick at no trifling sacrifice, and, rather than fail, I’ll drain my purse.’

‘Mon petit coquin!’ prattled the parrot in the bow-window.

‘And, Madam,’ said he, after he had risen to take his leave, ‘as I before said, I’m a plain man. I mean, so soon as I can wind my business up, to leave this place and country — I would to-night, if I could; but less, I fear, than some days — perhaps a week will not suffice. When I’m gone, Madam, I beg you’ll exercise no reserve respecting the cause of my somewhat abrupt departure; I could easily make a pretext of something else; but the truth, Madam, is easiest as well as best to be told; I protracted my stay so long as hope continued. Now my suit is ended. I can no longer endure the place. The remembrance of your kindness only, sweetens the bitterness of my regret, and that I shall bear with me so long, Madam, as life remains.’

And saying this, as Mr. Richardson writes, ‘he bowed upon her passive hand,’ and Miss Rebecca made him a grand and gracious courtesy.

As he retreated, whom should Dominick announce but Captain Cluffe and Lieutenant Puddock. And there was an odd smile on Mr. Dangerfield’s visage, as he slightly acknowledged them in passing, which Aunt Rebecca somehow did not like.

So Aunt Becky’s levee went on; and as Homer, in our school-boy ear, sang the mournful truth, that ‘as are the generations of the forest leaves so are the succession of men,’ the Dangerfield efflorescence had no sooner disappeared, and that dry leaf whisked away down the stairs, than Cluffe and Puddock budded forth and bloomed in his place, in the sunshine of Aunt Rebecca’s splendid presence.

Cluffe, in virtue of his rank and pretensions, marched in the van, and, as Aunt Becky received him, little Puddock’s round eyes swept the room in search, perhaps, of some absent object.

‘The general’s not here,’ said Aunt Becky loftily and severely, interpreting Puddock’s wandering glance in that way. ‘Your visit, perhaps, is for him — you’ll find him in his study, with the orderly.’

‘My visit, Madam,’ said Puddock, with a slight blush, ‘was intended for you, Madam — not for the general, whom I had the honour of seeing this morning on parade.’

‘Oh! for me? I thank you,’ said Aunt Rebecca, with a rather dry acknowledgment. And so she turned and chatted with Cluffe, who, not being at liberty to talk upon his usual theme — his poor, unhappy friend, Puddock, and his disgraces — was eloquent upon the monkey, and sweet upon the lap-dogs, and laughed till he grew purple at the humours of the parrot, and swore, as gentlemen then swore, ’twas a conjuror, a wonder, and as good as a play. While this entertaining conversation was going on, there came a horrid screech and a long succession of yelps from the court-yard.

‘Good gracious mercy,’ cried Aunt Rebecca, sailing rapidly to the window, ‘’tis Flora’s voice. Sweet creature, have they killed you — my angel; what is it? — where are you, sweetheart? — where can she be? Oh, dear — oh, dear!’— and she looked this way and that in her distraction.

But the squeak subsided, and Flora was not to be seen; and Aunt Becky’s presence of mind returned, and she said —

‘Captain Cluffe, ’tis a great liberty; but you’re humane — and, besides, I know that you would readily do me a kindness.’ That emphasis was shot at poor Puddock. ‘And may I pray you to try on the steps if you can see the dear animal, anywhere — you know Flora?’

‘Know her? — oh dear, yes,’ cried Cluffe with alacrity, who, however, did not, but relied on her answering to her name, which he bawled lustily from the door-steps and about the court-yard, with many terms of endearment, intended for Aunt Becky’s ear, in the drawing-room.

Little Puddock, who was hurt at that lady’s continued severity, was desirous of speaking; for he liked Aunt Becky, and his heart swelled within him at her injustice; but though he hemmed once or twice, somehow the exordium was not ready, and his feelings could not find a tongue.

Aunt Becky looked steadfastly from the window for a while, and then sailed majestically toward the door, which the little ensign, with an humble and somewhat frightened countenance, hastened to open.

‘Pray, Sir, don’t let me trouble you,’ said Aunt Becky, in her high, cold way.

‘Madam, ’tis no trouble — it would be a happiness to me, Madam, to serve you in any way you would permit; but ’tis a trouble to me, Madam, indeed, that you leave the room, and a greater trouble,’ said little Puddock, waxing fluent as he proceeded, ‘that I have incurred your displeasure — indeed, Madam, I know not how — your goodness to me, Madam, in my sickness, I never can forget.’

‘You can forget, Sir — you have forgot. Though, indeed, Sir, there was little to remember, I— I’m glad you thought me kind, Sir. I— I wish you well, Sir,’ said Aunt Becky. She was looking down and a little pale, and in her accents something hurried and almost sad. ‘And as for my displeasure, Sir, who said I was displeased? And if I were, what could my displeasure be to you? No, Sir,’ she went on almost fiercely, and with a little stamp on the floor, ‘you don’t care; and why should you? — you’ve proved it — you don’t, Lieutenant Puddock, and you never did.’

And, without waiting for an answer, Aunt Becky flashed out of the room, and up stairs to her chamber, the door of which she slammed fiercely; and Gertrude, who was writing a letter in her own chamber, heard her turn the key hastily in the lock.

When Cluffe, who for some time continued to exercise his lungs in persuasive invitations to Flora, at last gave over the pursuit, and returned to the drawing-room, to suggest that the goddess in question had probably retreated to the kitchen, he was a good deal chagrined to find the drawing-room ‘untreasured of its mistress.’

Puddock looked a good deal put out, and his explanation was none of the clearest; and he could not at all say that the lady was coming back.

‘I think, Lieutenant Puddock,’ said Cluffe, who was much displeased, and had come to regard Aunt Rebecca very much as under his especial protection, ‘it might have been better we hadn’t called here. I— you see — you’re not — you see it yourself — you’ve offended Miss Rebecca Chattesworth somehow, and I’m afraid you’ve not mended matters while I was down stairs bawling after that cursed — that — the — little dog, you know. And — and for my part, I’m devilish sorry I came, Sir.’

This was said after a wait of nearly ten minutes, which appeared at least twice as long.

‘I’m sorry, Sir, I embarrassed you with the disadvantage of my company,’ answered little Puddock, with dignity.

‘Why, ‘tisn’t that, you know,’ rejoined Cluffe, in a patronising ‘my good-fellow’ sort of way; ‘you know I always liked your company devilish well. But where’s the good of putting one’s self in the way of being thought de trop — don’t you see — by other people — and annoyed in this way — and — you — you don’t know the world, Puddock — you’d much better leave yourself in any hands, d’ye see; and so, I suppose, we may as well be off now —’tis no use waiting longer.’

And discontentedly and lingeringly the gallant captain, followed by Puddock, withdrew himself — pausing to caress the wolf-dog at the corner of the court-yard, and loitering as long as it was decent in the avenue.

All this time Miss Gertrude Chattesworth, like her more mature relative, was in the quiet precincts of her chamber. She, too, had locked her door, and, with throbbing temples and pale face, was writing a letter, from which I take the liberty of printing a few scarcely coherent passages.

‘I saw you on Sunday — for near two hours — may Heaven forgive me, thinking of little else than you. And, oh! what would I not have given to speak, were it but ten words to you? When is my miserable probation to end? Why is this perverse mystery persisted in? I sometimes lose all hope in my destiny, and well-nigh all trust in you. I feel that I am a deceiver, and cannot bear it. I assure you, on my sacred honour, I believe there is nothing gained by all this — oh! forgive the word — deception. How or when is it to terminate? — what do you purpose? — why does the clerk’s absence from the town cause you so much uneasiness — is there any danger you have not disclosed? A friend told me that you were making preparations to leave Chapelizod and return to England. I think I was on the point of fainting when I heard it. I almost regret I did not, as the secret would thus have been discovered, and my emancipation accomplished. How have you acquired this strange influence over me, to make me so deceive those in whom I should most naturally confide? I am persuaded they believe I really recoil from you. And what is this new business of Doctor Sturk? I am distracted with uncertainties and fears. I hear so little, and imperfectly from you, I cannot tell from your dark hints whether some new danger lurks in those unlooked-for quarters. I know not what magic binds me so to you, to endure the misery of this strange deceitful mystery — but you are all mystery; and yet be not — you cannot be-my evil genius. You will not condemn me longer to a wretchedness that must destroy me. I conjure you, declare yourself. What have we to fear? I will brave all — anything rather than darkness, suspense, and the consciousness of a continual dissimulation. Declare yourself, I implore of you, and be my angel of light and deliverance.’

There is a vast deal more, but this sample is quite enough; and when the letter was finished, she signed it —

‘Your most unhappy and too-faithful,

‘GERTRUDE’.

And having sealed it, she leaned her anxious head upon her hand, and sighed heavily.

She knew very well by what means to send it; and the letter awaited at his house him for whom it was intended on his return that evening.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/l/lefanu/house/chapter82.html

Last updated Monday, March 17, 2014 at 16:49